The ISI Always Rings Twice

The ABC News blog The Blotter reports that the ISI did a number on an American news correspondent and her Pakistani photographer sometime recently:

New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall tells ABC News she was assaulted by plain-clothed government security agents while reporting in Quetta, a Pakistani city near the Afghan frontier where NATO suspects the Taliban hides its shadow government.

Akhtar Soomro, a freelance Pakistani photographer working with Gall, was detained for five-and-a-half hours. According to Gall, the agents broke down the door to her hotel room, after she refused to let them enter, and began to seize her notebooks and laptop. When she tried to stop them, she says one of the men punched her twice in the face and head.

“I fell backwards onto a coffee table smashing the crockery,” she recalled in a written account of the incident. “I have heavy bruising on my arms, on my temple and my cheekbone, and swelling on my left eye and a sprained knee.”

Gall says the agents accused her and Soomro of trying to meet the Taliban. They identified themselves as working for Pakistan’s Special Branch, an undercover police department, but Gall said other local reporters identified them as employees from one of the country’s two powerful spy agencies: Inter-Services Intelligence or Military Intelligence.

The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Pakistan the “third most dangerous” place in the world to work in 2006, after two journalists died in violent circumstances, and more than a dozen others were abducted or assaulted by state authorities.

In its annual report, Reporters without Borders complained that in Pakistan “investigative journalists are constantly targeted by military security services, which have no hesitation in harassing anyone they find troublesome.” It was the first reported incident of Pakistani agents belting a female reporter.

Gall said the Minister of State for Information, Tariq Azeem Khan, apologized for the incident and helped secure the release of the photographer and Gall’s belongings. But she says he told her to inform Pakistani authorities ahead of future visits to Quetta “to avoid such difficulties.”

I will limit my comments, many of which would be obvious anyway. It is worth pointing out however that this incident should remind us that as difficult as it is to be a foreign correspondent in a country where political conditions are dodgy, local freelancers such as Ms. Gall’s photographer are even more exposed. I commend the brother for his courage and I hope he stays safe. Continue reading

Not A Hate Crime

…unless the crime was self-hate. In a story that keeps getting sent my way, it turns out that a Sikh teenager in Scotland lied about having his hair cut during a racist attack (via the BBC):

The boy from Edinburgh reported the alleged racist attack in November and the case was widely publicised.
The cutting of his hair was an act which was seen as deeply insulting to the Sikh faith.
Lothian and Borders Police confirmed the attack had not taken place and said the boy had expressed remorse. They said no further action would be taken.

The Sikh community in the United Kingdom rallied around the child:

More than 200 Sikhs from around the UK gathered in Edinburgh to hold a two-hour prayer vigil following the boy’s claims.

It turns out that the boy cut his own hair and injured himself to simulate a crime:

The teenager is believed to have had personal problems and was also having cultural identity issues brought about by differences between his Sikh upbringing and Western society
Police officers sent a report on the incident to the procurator fiscal but it is understood the teenager will not face charges for wasting police time because a prosecution is not felt to be in the public interest.

One thing I have a question about is the phrasing of this line from the BBC article I quoted throughout this post:

Hair is a religious symbol for Sikhs and it is strictly against their faith to have it shorn.

If it’s strictly against Sikhism to cut your hair, what does that make all the Sikhs who have done so? I’m not satisfied with some of the answers I’ve read online, so I’m going to more reliable sources, i.e. you. :) Is it a question of only needing to keep your hair if you were baptized? I always thought it was an “ideally, you’re not supposed to cut it” situation, not a “strictly against Sikhism” one. I know I will be edified in oh, approximately four minutes. Such is the power of the Mutiny.

While I wait for that inevitable development, I’ll state that I’m really sad for this kid. As is the case for most of us, being a teenager sucked for me– and I feel compassion for him because I, too, so wanted to cut the hair that fell to my KNEES, which I wasn’t allowed to leave loose, let alone get rid of– but I still can’t imagine a moment when I’d feel compelled to do similar. My heart goes out to him and everyone else who was affected by his actions. Continue reading

The Real Hard-Knock Life


Erstwhile Sepia guest blogger Saheli is amazing for many reasons, but now I have confirmation that it’s obviously genetic; her Uncle is Arunabha Ghosh, who recently accompanied rapper Jay-Z to Africa. Uncle Arunabha (do you like how I totally mooched him?) is involved with many worthy issues:

He worked on the rights of indigenous people, international migration, and the rise of culturally intolerant movements around the world. He recently delivered a lecture on the integration of immigrants at the Universal Forum of Cultures in Barcelona. [link]

What caught my attention and what Saheli just blogged about, however, is water:

Over a billion people lack access to clean drinking water. Every day–including today, Christmas Eve–over 4000 children lacking good drinking water will die of diarrhea-causing diseases.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around such astonishing statistics, or understand what causes this great gaping need, and how simple some of the solutions are. Last month MTV put up a set of videos in which Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter went on a tour of a home and a school in Africa to understand the basic issues. He was accompanied by his “homeboy,” my uncle, Arunabha Ghosh, a Policy Specialist and one of the authors of the UNDP Human Development Report. Arunabha has spent the last few years tirelessly running around the world, raising the alarm about development needs and spreading the word about development solutions. Last week he addressed an Indian Parliamentary forum on national water issues.[link]

Saheli does a fantastic job of breaking down the plight of children who spend hours fetching something which most of us shamefully take for granted, as we let the faucets run while brushing our teeth (wasting 3-7 gallons per minute). See for yourself, on her “More Fantasticness” blog, here. And if you want to know what I want for my birthday, see for yourself, here. Continue reading

Merry Christmas to All, and to All, “Show Some Pride!”

3670482_a31914cae1.jpg One of my dearest friends has an Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post (page A29). Nitya, I’d be proud of you even if “Longing to Join in Christmas” hadn’t been published, but now that it has, Akka loves you even more, because obviously, like all good South Asian elders, my affection for you is directly tied to your achievements. ;) I can’t think of a more perfect post for today (so let me get out of the way):

Christmas is the season when you are most likely to find yourself on a street of beautiful homes with twinkling lights, warm fireplaces and happy families outfitted in festive holiday sweaters, only to be filled with a yearning to possess not just the house but the lifestyle inside.

For my whole Indian American childhood in the early 1980s, I wanted a Christmas tree that way. And it wasn’t for the presents. It was for the lifestyle.

I wanted the Santa Claus, I wanted the holly wreath and I wanted the jolly elves who toiled in a workshop all year long. I wanted the sleigh bell-wearing reindeer on my roof. I wanted the colorful stockings hung by the chimney. And I wanted the jolly fat man to wiggle down our (nonexistent) chimney before he ho-ho-hoed his way across the night sky in a triumphant journey back to the North Pole.

From the warmth of my Hindu home, I always longed for that good old Christian magic — and not a holiday like Christmas but Christmas itself. I wanted to belong to the classroom party hosted by homeroom mothers in Santa hats, to know the words to the holiday songs that everyone knew, to feel the evergreen anticipation that never faded or fell from branches needle by needle.

My immigrant father, who’d recently come to America as a University of California grad student, was a man of little sympathy and extra principle when it came to the wants and woes of my childhood.

Continue reading

Travelers: Beaches of Bangladesh, Chatting on Indian Trains…

I hope y’all are enjoying your holiday travels. For me it’s yet another December spent at home on the East Coast, followed by 3 days of hard-core academia at the annual South Asian Literary Association and Modern Language Association conferences. (Note: I’m not really complaining: this year we are blessed by the presence of a smiling, gurgling little baby. But yeah, a change of scenery would still be nice.)

Travel journalists, by contrast, get to have leisurely travels all the time — for work. Today I was particularly drawn by a recent New York Times article about visiting beaches in Bangladesh, and a Times of London travelogue (thanks, Indianoguy) of a reporter’s trip all around India. Going to the beaches of Bangladesh (on the eastern tip, near the border of Burma/Myanmar) is something I would never have thought of doing, but it actually makes perfect sense. Incidentally, the tourist board’s official motto is perhaps unintentionally comical, but actually works despite itself: “Visit Bangladesh Before Tourists Come.”

And my favorite bit from the London Times travelogue is about a train ride to Jhansi:

Train journeys here are great levellers. Few Indians frantically fill their time, as westerners do, with work or reading. They regard the journeys as a chance to “interact” and talk, about anything from the price of aubergines to the finer points of Tantric meditation. By the time they get off, they’re exchanging business cards and pledging eternal friendship.

As fillings turned to extractions, the cabin attendant slouched past with an urn of peppery tomato soup, which he served in plastic cups (they would have been biodegradeable pottery cups five years ago). He scattered it with a handful of croutons from his pocket. The lady dentist seized her moment. “How does your daily routine here compare with back home?” she asked.. “How does India compare with UK?”

I said the UK is ordered, startlingly quiet and clean in comparison, and that its people are reserved and, in places, few and far between. I mentioned North Ronaldsay, the Orkney island which is three miles long and one mile wide, and has a population of less than 50. “Amazing!” said the dentist. And I described how my wife and I go walking in the Derbyshire Peak District and sometimes meet no more than six or seven people in four hours. “Astonishing!” said the biotechnology student.

He had a point. In the packed 3rd class carriage next door, some sort of evolutionary struggle for survival seemed to be going on. I said that British trains sometimes travel with as few as a dozen passengers. And that, if it’s even ten minutes late, there could be a riot.

This was a lie, but it seemed pretty relevant, as our train was now four rather than three hours late. (link)

I especially like the point about how mass-transit in the west is largely anti-social, while the experience in India (or perhaps all of South Asia?) is the opposite. (Does anyone have favorite subcontinental train/plane/bus experiences they want to share?)

Incidentally, if you’re sick of reading about western travelers in India (while they’re far from uniform, the stories always seem to have comments on the crazy traffic patterns and the smell), there are some great “internal” desi travel stories up at I thought this in-depth article on Lucknow was an especially good read. And there are plenty more. Continue reading

Arthi Meera’s Pop Lullabies; and, a question on “fusion”

arthi meera.jpg I recently discovered the music of Arthi Meera on Myspace, and even though it’s probably too late to get counted on Siddhartha’s end of the year poll, I think readers might want to go check her out.

Of the songs that are up at Myspace, “Silty Sea” has gotten the most plays — and it’s a lovely song. But “Wander Away” is a catchy and infectious pop melody. Her album is also available via Itunes (I would recommend “In my head” and “It’s not you.”).

Arthi, who plays guitar and sings on all her songs, was raised in Chicago, and lives there now. She says she was trained in classical Hindustani singing, though the songs on her album show no trace of that particular background. Snippets of her voice, singing “Pardesi Jaana Nahin,” are in the closing credits of the film V For Vendetta (listen to BKAB Speechless at Ethan Stoller’s Myspace page; incidentally, Manish mentioned this song months ago). [Correction: that is not Arthi Meera's voice, I'm told.]

I was a little curious about how she went from ‘A’ to ‘B’, so I sent her an email with some questions. Her reply was pretty thought-provoking. Continue reading

Ninde Achan Aara, Nel?

Sreesanth Swinging His Bat…. Dhoom Machale?!

It’s my first time, Mutineers, so be gentle. I’m a total Cricket virgin and if you’re mean to me about what is sure to be an amateurish post, I’ll be scarred forever– whether I end up a frigid fan or not is in your hopefully kind and capable hands. ;)

After hearing about Mallu hotness Sreesanth (thanks, DTK), I had to visit ye olde YouTube to find out about this right-arm fast-medium-pace bowler, who is a right-handed tailender. Apparently, excessively lippy South African Andre Nel questioned Sreesanth’s heart/courage/skillz after Sreesanth evaded something called a bouncer. Sreesanth responded by hitting Nel for a six and then performing a dance I’d normally associate with an end zone. Oh, that was just brutal to write. I can’t imagine how many men I’ve just annoyed. ;)

I may not know a damned thing about what is arguably the most popular sport in all of South Asia, but I know the art of trash talk well and if anything could get me to fall in love with this very Brown game, it’s the video I’ve posted above. Set to some probably-famous song I’ve never heard before (“Dhoom Machale”), it’s way more fun than the other YouTube clips which came up when I searched for the new object of my lecherous (he’s eight years younger) affection. Not since I was kicked off our co-ed IM team in grad school for illegal (and may I add, utterly justified and deliciously violent) tackling during a flag-football game have I been so delighted by the immaturity of declaring “in your face!”. Gopu, I heart you. :)

UPDATE: The Google Video seems clearer, so I swapped it. Continue reading

The Myth of “Martial Races”

Gurkha.jpg Though I’ve always been proud of the Sikh tradition in military service — particularly in the First and Second World Wars — the fact that the British Raj designated certain ethno-religious groups as martial races makes me uneasy. And recently I’ve been reading a book on the Gurkha regiments, (Byron Farwell’s The Gurkhas), and after reading a number of chapters I’m ready to throw out the designation entirely.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Gurkhas (or Gorkhas) come from a region of Nepal west of Kathmandu, and have been actively recruited by the British for service as mercenaries since 1815. It so happened that the British discovered the Gurkhas’ military aptitude after defeating them in a series of particularly tough battles — just as they did with the Sikhs, the Marathas, and indeed, the Zulus (all of whom would be designated “martial races”; see the full list here). Often, troops from one recently conquered region would be instrumental in defeating the next group (the Gurkhas were deployed in the Anglo-Sikh Wars, for instance).

As a side-note, though most Gurkha regiments joined the Indian army at independence, the British did retain a small number of Gurkhas for the British Army after 1947 — and they still actively recruit them today (on a fully voluntary basis, of course). Gurkhas were deployed in the Falklands’ War, in Kosovo, and are now in Afghanistan. Retired Gurkhas are also probably going to be deployed to monitor the fragile peace agreement between the Maoists and the new government of Nepal. Joining the Gurkha regiments in the British Army is considered desirable, but it’s a tough gig to get: one of the physical tests in order to be accepted involves running uphill for 40 minutes with a 70 pound bag of stones strapped to your back!

The author of the book on the Gurkhas is mainly a military historian, not an anthropologist, so it’s probably too much to expect to ask him to deconstruct the idea of “martial races.” But it’s extremely frustrating that in episode after episode Farwell seems to reiterate a few straightforward stereotypes as explaining the Gurkhas’ effectiveness in battle on behalf of the British: they are simple peasants, they are hardened by life in a mountainous region, and they have a strong sense of cultural identity. The same could be said of many other ethnic groups, most of whom were not designated “martial races.” So why the Gurkhas?

It seems hard to escape the conclusion that “martial race” is a convenient term created by the British to continue military recruiting patterns favorable to the progress of imperial expansionism. Continue reading

Macaca Music Poll: The Time Is NOW

You dandies must be too busy shopping for lipstick or fretting about your naughty bits, because the volume of submissions to the Macaca Music Poll has been shamefully low. Don’t get me wrong: the quality has been high, and I’m going to need a couple of days to track down some of the picks and pull together a wrap-up post worthy of the contributions. However, there are a LOT of regulars who have yet to submit entries — yeah, y’all know who you are — and I know some of you lurkers have some cool picks to share as well.

So here it is: Last Call for the poll. Send me a list of up to five songs or albums that did it for you this year. Need inspiration? Here are my choices for the Boston Globe and for WNYC. You’ll also find picks in all categories from my colleagues at both outlets here and here. Email your suggestions here. I’ll post results by the weekend. Peace and humptiness forevah! Continue reading

A Business-Friendly Plan For Mumbai Slum Resettlement?

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times by Anand Giridharadas about the way in which the Indian real estate boom has been affecting slums in Mumbai.

As many readers may be aware, Mumbai shantytowns are unusual in that their residents are often effectively permanent, and many people living there actually prefer the chaotic environment to the cramped enclosed spaces that are sometimes made available to them via various housing/resettlement schemes. The old method of clearing slums consisted of mainly bulldozing them and then going away, at which point the former residents would simply come back and rebuild. It was, in effect, both ineffectual and unfair. In recent years, the pace of slum-clearing has quickened, as the government has hopes of “Shanghaization” in support of “Vision Mumbai” (see this Frontline article for more).

But now there is a new method, where private developers are resettling slum dwellers into tower apartments they build and give away for free to residents. In exchange, they get to develop the remainder of the land any way they want: Continue reading